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The complexity of English

English is a complex language. With this, I don’t only mean that it is particularly hard to learn (in comparison to more fixed rule languages) but also that it has many different parents. Just some of which are Greek, Latin and French, plus a good dose of everything from Japanese to Swahili. Academics have estimated that “80 per cent of the total vocabulary of English is borrowed.”*; Because it has all these influences, it means that there is going to be some confusion between words. Let’s look at some of the commonly and some of the not-so commonly confused words.

Come on and test yourself. In the following choices, which is correct?

  • The affect/effect of the medication was positive.
  • Our teacher moved amongst/among the students during the test.
  • Check out the blond/blonde guy at the bar.
  • The historic /historical buildings in Syria are being demolished.
  • In order to remain disinterested/uninterested, the politician took no funding from business.

The answers!

  • “effect” – noun meaning result/consequence. This medicine did what it was supposed to do. “Affect” is a verb, so “The medicine affected the patient positively.”
  • Both answers are correct, but “amongst” doesn’t really exist in American English. In British English, the teacher walked in between the students to check if anyone was cheating.
  • The rule is “blond” for a male and “blonde” for a female. Obviously, somebody thinks the guy with fair hair at the bar is worth looking at!
  • “historic” = has importance in history. “historical” = having taken place in history. The buildings show proof of historic Syrian civilisations being destroyed.    
  • “disinterested” = impartial. “uninterested” = boring. The politician shouldn’t take the money because he must stay objective.

Now, you can start to see why second language English speakers sometimes make mistakes like: “I love going to game parks because the animals are extinct.” Here “extinct” as in “the animal species has died out”, is confused with “endangered” – “they are in danger of dying out”.  Because “English is a bastard”, there are probably some examples here which first language English speakers also found confusing.

Keep watching this space for more!



* Stockwell, Robert, and Donka Minkova. English words: History and structure. Cambridge University Press, 2001.